Farm labor situation tenuousPublished 10:52am Thursday, August 15, 2013
LANSING — Up and down the west coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, fruit and vegetable growers are girding themselves for a challenging harvest season.
Vineyards, fields and orchards are heavily laden with many of Michigan’s most distinctive crops, and more than anything growers just want to see it all picked in a timely fashion. Their one outstanding question for the coming weeks: will there be enough workers to bring in the better-than-average yields on everything from blueberry bushes to grape vines and apple trees?
“We’re short,” said Fred Leitz, who grows apples, berries and several different vegetables near Sodus in Berrien County. “We’re probably about 10 percent short right now. We were as high as 50 percent a few weeks ago, but then people started trickling in.” Contributing to that trickle, Leitz explained, was the completion of detasseling work at nearby seed corn operations, and that the region’s blueberry growers are doing more mechanical harvesting than usual — because there aren’t enough workers to go around.
Recent cool weather slowed down the development of some crops, and thereby helped alleviate some of the labor issue.
But the heat wave that preceded it put a spotlight on the worker shortage at Leitz’s farm.
“When it was hot, we had everyone in vegetables just to keep up, so we had to let some blueberries go, we let the cukes go, lot of the apples didn’t get thinned,” he said. “We’ve only got 27 acres of blueberries, but they only got picked twice. We could’ve gone through them probably three more times.”
Forty acres of cucumbers never got picked, Leitz said, and marketing options will be limited for undersized apples from orchards that weren’t sufficiently thinned.
“It’s been a tough one,” he said, adding that normally he and his neighbors will help each other—sharing workers during the height of the season to minimize the effect of minor, short-term labor shortages “This year it’s more like everybody’s keeping everybody.”